German-Israeli Relations Merkel and Netanyahu Seek to Play Down Differences

Despite recent differences between Germany and Israel over settlement construction plans on the West Bank, Angela Merkel and Benjamin Netanyahu pledged friendship on Thursday in Berlin. They have, said the chancellor, agreed to disagree.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu together with Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Chancellery in Berlin on Thursday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu together with Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Chancellery in Berlin on Thursday.

Foto: Guido Bergmann/ dpa

Outside, Berlin has been covered with a thin layer of fresh snow, the first of the winter. Inside, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are smiling into the cameras, eager to show unity after recent days of divergence. The two are well aware that the two countries are bound together in a special and complicated relationship. German history is always a companion when the two meet.

This time was no exception.

Following the meeting at the Chancellery, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle joined his Israeli guest for a visit to a memorial at the Grunewald commuter train stop in Berlin. During the Third Reich, Jews were loaded onto trains at the site for their final journey to the death camps in the east.

Given that horrific history, Merkel told Netanyahu that she is fully aware "what a pleasure it is that we can cooperate today." She praised the two countries' collaboration when it comes to education and research, and extolled Israel as being the only democracy in the Middle East. The message was clear: The German-Israeli relationship is so solid that occasional differences of opinion are not a threat. And on Thursday in Berlin, the pair made little effort to hide those differences.

On Wednesday evening, prior to Thursday's high-level meetings between Israeli and German cabinet members, Netanyahu joined Merkel for dinner in the Chancellery. The two talked about bilateral cooperation, but also about the current situation in the Middle East, including in Egypt, and the danger of chemical weapons in Syria. They also talked, of course, about the plans recently announced by Netanyahu's government to build 3,000 new housing units for settlers near Jerusalem.

Brief and to the Point

The construction plans, intended as a punishment of the Palestinians for their successful application to the United Nations last week for non-member observer status, involve area E-1 between East Jerusalem and Ma'ale Adumim, and would essentially cut the West Bank in two. And it is an issue that has long been a point of contention in Merkel's relationship with Netanyahu. In September 2011, Merkel even became irate in a telephone conversation with the Israeli prime minister during a discussion of West Bank settlements. The differences have not disappeared in the meantime.

"On the settlement question, we have agreed to disagree," said Merkel on Thursday. Netanyahu struck a similar tone: "One should be able to voice different opinions among friends." In contrast to the emotion he showed during the German-Israeli government consultations a year and a half ago, Netanyahu was much more relaxed as he took questions from the media this time around. Then, he held a stern lecture on settlements as he stood at Merkel's side. This time, he was brief and to the point.

The E-1 area, he noted, was hardly new. Previous Israeli governments under Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Olmert were also aware that the narrow corridor would become a key part of any peace agreement with the Palestinians, something, he said, that the Palestinians were aware of as well. Still, he refused to give ground, though he did offer direct peace talks with the Palestinians.

Despite their recent differences, Merkel left no room for doubt in Berlin that she supports the right for the Jewish state to exist. She again repeated her statement that the security of Israel is a "part of Germany's raison d'état."

Triggered by Hamas

She said it has been "unfortunately" necessary to make this clear again, after the rocket attacks by Hamas from Gaza. The chancellor emphasized that the recent violence in the Gaza Strip, which saw an eight day skirmish between Israel and the Palestinians, was triggered by Hamas rockets.

Security was at its highest level for Netanyahu and his traveling delegation, who met with their German counterparts in the cabinet's chamber. A large area surrounding the chancellery in Berlin was blocked off, and police officers stood over nearby ventilation ducts from the underground train as snow fell Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

On Wednesday evening, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle hosted a reception for the Israeli delegation at the Villa Borsig in northwestern Berlin. Some celebrities were among those invited, including Israeli soccer star Ben Sahar, who plays for the Berlin team Hertha BSC. Berlin has attracted Israelis for a long time. They come as athletes, scientists, and artists, and tens of thousands visit each year as tourists.

In three years, Germany and Israel will celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations. The peace process in the Middle East remains a constant theme even as the situation in the Middle East seems to have become more challenging than ever in recent months. The Europeans, Netanyahu says, believe the settlements issue is the root cause of the conflict. But, he argues, it is not purely a territorial issue, which is evident in the most recent attacks from the Gaza Strip, where Israel doesn't keep troops.

'Differences of Opinion'

Israel, Netanyahu says, needs partners among the Palestinians who are not against the existence of Israel. "I haven't given up yet, that's what I tell Mr. Abbas," he says.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian National Authority, recently celebrated his success at the United Nations, as a large majority of the UN General Assembly essentially recognized a state of Palestine by granting the Authority non-member observer status. Netanyahu had hoped Germany would vote no on the measure, and even before his visit to Berlin he voiced his disappointment over Germany's abstention on the vote. Merkel said she had "taken note of it."

There had even been speculation in the Israeli media over whether or not Germany might even join in possible sanctions against Israel. The press conference at the Chancellery showed how deep the feeling of insecurity was. Merkel was asked by an Israeli journalist if Germany would take "further measures" against Israel. Clearly irritated, Merkel said after a brief pause: "I am not someone who threatens." This week's consultations, she said, focused on solutions to problems and on the question as to whether the construction of settlements would be a "helpful step, or not a helpful step."

The foundations of German-Israeli relations are "untouchable" Merkel affirmed, adding "and they withstand differences of opinion."